Modern stresses on classical systems

I was impressed by a lot of what I heard at #macul16 in Grand Rapids a few weeks back. (For those of you not in Michigan, the MACUL Conference is one of the biggest EdTech conferences in the Midwest. 4300 educators came together for three days of learning…)

But I can’t help but feeling like a wave has crashed on the shore. The overall messages sounded different than in previous years. Don’t get me wrong, there was still plenty of enthusiasm, but it wasn’t enthusiasm for technology proper. It seemed like the presenters were often asking: What kind of resources do we need to use to create the kind of cultures that will, as keynote speaker Rushton Hurley put it “make dynamic learning the norm?”

This was epitomized by Michael Medvinsky in his excellent talk about Culture of Thinking. The message was clear. FIRST decide what type of learning you want to see the students do. THEN decide what type of resources it will take to create an environment that is conducive to that type of learning. When the education system starts to process through those ideas and concepts, it can create stress in some very interesting areas.

What do we want the student learning about? Remember, we can talk about the TYPE of learning we want, but we still have to have some predetermined baseline for the WHAT of the learning. The maker movement and genius hour movement of recent years have inserted the importance of student-chosen learning time into the broader conversation, but the content we expect for EACH student by design says something about what we value as a culture. We need to take that message seriously. (I started hearing the term “passion-driven schools”. This actually makes me a little uncomfortable. More on that later.)

How do spaces like the library, the computer lab, and the cafeteria (before and after lunch time) play into our goals for our culture and environment? Come on a journey with Ann Smart and Kellie De Los Santos to see how the school library can be re-visioned. Also maybe Shannon McClintock Miller who models some fairly down-to-earth, but nonetheless super impressive redesigns for the position of librarian. Consider, too, that cafeterias tend to have tons of open space, high ceilings, varied structures for sitting, leaning, kneeling, doing work. And they are typically really, really empty during the school day with the exception of lunch times and overflow before and after school. In some places, this isn’t true as the cafeteria is also the gym, but in places where the cafeteria sits empty much of the day, what could be done with it that isn’t? What opportunities are being missed?

What’s the future hold for things like grades, calendars, credits, class rankings, GPAs, and so on and so on? The school environment is hanging on to a variety of structures that are throwbacks to a time when the industrial model of schools made a lot more sense. But modern changes are putting pressure on a lot of different things. Some of which are not getting discussed much in the conversations I’m hearing.

Case-in-point: I recently had a conversation with a teacher who had a variety of digital coding, IT, network security courses ready to roll out, free of charge, to students as young as eighth grade. He and I had a long conversation about how to get these courses in front of the students who’d be interested. And the primary sticking points? Well, first, the courses were typically projected between 40-60 hours to complete. That’s 8-12 weeks in most schools. (Schools normally work on 12-week, 18-week, and 36-week cycles). Second, what would the student receive at the end? A certificate from the course designer. (Schools usually operate in grades and credits.)

And I really feel like this isn’t small potatoes. (More on this later, too…) But this simple conversation about a perfectly reasonable idea did a great job bringing up how unprepared our structures are to cope with the flexible scheduling and grading practices that modern learning is going to increasingly require.

An idea like that? It changes the game. No cohort. No grade. No credit. And what do you do with them when it’s time for them to start something new in week 8 of a semester? (The same thing you do with the student who are ready two weeks earlier?) These absolutely aren’t insurmountable barriers. In fact, these are fairly solvable problems as long as schools are starting embracing a new vision for words like “course”, “learner”, “completion”, etc.

I got a what-if… What if we create a series of general elective courses that are designed in such a way that a student could enter at any time and be able to meaningfully join in. Maybe a phys ed, general art, theater, a project-based engineering course, and basic culinary. One for each hour of the day. Running both semesters. Courses with detached, independent units, something with a lot of DOING where the students who have been there longer are expected to model techniques for the new learners. Courses taught so that the successful completion of the course is judged based on the performance while there and not how long that time was. (That is, you can still earn an “A” for the semester having only been there two weeks. Even Our Lord realized how difficult that type of conversation can be.) It would be tricky. Especially at first. But not impossible. It will need to be designed intentionally, by people who are willing and able to do it well.

These questions have modern answers that bring with them a lot of potential stresses and unforeseen consequences. When you pile them all on top of each other, you just get a educational system that is ready to redesign itself from the foundations up. And I just hope that we’re ready for it. The proponents ready for the change not being as quick as they’d like and opponents ready to use their “yeah-buts” constructively.